Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

August 6th, 2021:

Who favors a vaccine mandate?

A lot of people, apparently. Don’t expect it to make much difference, though.

Most Texans support measures requiring all eligible people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a recent survey.

More than 65 percent of Texans said they would support vaccine mandates issued by federal, state or local governments; the national average was 64 percent. More than 70 percent of Texans would support vaccine requirements to board an airplane; more than 62 percent would support vaccine mandates for children returning to schools; and 67 percent would support them for students returning to universities.

The findings come as some private businesses begin requiring vaccines, but government leaders have resisted such mandates as they’ve struggled to convince large numbers of Americans to get vaccinated, even as the more contagious delta variant spreads. Less than 53 percent of Texans are fully vaccinated, according to state data.

President Joe Biden last week announced that federal workers will have to sign forms attesting they’ve been vaccinated or else be required to wear masks, take weekly tests and more.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, meanwhile, issued an executive order last week barring local governments from limiting the capacity of restaurants and other businesses or requiring facial coverings, even if they are located in a hospital region with a high level of COVID-19 patients.

Abbott and other Texas Republicans have vocally opposed the idea of mandating vaccines.

The national poll was conducted in June and July by the COVID States Project, a group of researchers at Northeastern University, Harvard University, Rutgers University and Northwestern University. It included a survey of 707 Texans and findings in the state carried a margin of error of 4.7 percentage points.

The survey found Americans strongly support vaccine mandates, but there big gaps between Democrats and Republicans, and urban and rural residents.

The poll is here, and here’s the description: “Between June 9and July 7,2021, we surveyed 20,669 individuals across all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. The survey was conducted by PureSpectrum via an online, nonprobability sample, with state-level representative quotas for race/ethnicity, age, and gender (for methodological details on the other waves, see covidstates.org). In addition to balancing on these dimensions, we reweighted our data using demographic characteristics to match the U.S. population with respect to race/ethnicity, age, gender, education, and living in urban, suburban, or rural areas. This was the latest in a series of surveys we have been conducting since April 2020, examining attitudes and behaviors regarding COVID-19 in the United States.” In other words, a poll of adults, not registered voters, which tends to produce results more favorable to my preferred position. There was greater support, overall and in Texas, for requiring a vaccine to get on a plane, and varying levels for requiring a vaccine to go to school or college.

Like I said, I don’t know how much difference this makes. There are mandates of varying aggressiveness going out now for federal employees, some big private companies like WalMart and Disney, and some hospital systems here in Houston. I think a mandate for getting on an airplane is doable, and I hope that happens in the next week or so. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. It’s incredibly crappy that our malevolent governor refuses to let local governments mandate it for their employees, but maybe more private companies will step up. And hopefully soon we’ll get the final FDA approval, as well as initial approval for kids under the age of 12. Vax numbers are trending up a bit nationally now, especially in the hardest-hit states as some of the holdouts there are starting to get the message. It’s not fast enough and of course we never should have been in this position in the first place, but it’s better than what had been happening before. It’s going to be a rough month or two, so hold on and stay safe. Vox has more.

Special session 2.0 coming right up

Here we go again.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that the second special legislative session will begin at noon Saturday — and with an expanded agenda.

The 17-item agenda still includes well-known Abbott priorities like the election bill that caused House Democrats to flee the state at the start of the first special session, which ends Friday. But it also features six additions, including the spending of federal COVID-19 relief funds and potentially changing the legislative rules regarding quorums.

[…]

The start of the second special session is approaching amid continued uncertainty over the fate of paychecks for over 2,100 legislative staffers. Abbott vetoed their pay after House Democrats staged a walkout over the elections bill in the regular session that ended in May, and the funding was set to start Sept. 1.

The reinstatement of that funding remains on the agenda for the second special session.

The new items on the call also include legislation to protect Texans from radioactive waste and to change the timeline for the 2022 primary elections. The latter item is likely a nod to the fact that the primaries will have to be pushed back due to delays in the redistricting process.

The item on changing the rules around quorums comes after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called on Abbott to add something like it to the agenda for the second special session. The lieutenant governor wants to lower the threshold for each chamber to conduct business from two-thirds of members to a simple majority. That would require a state constitutional amendment and thus a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

As for education during the pandemic, Abbott is asking lawmakers to pass legislation that “in-person learning is available for any student whose parent wants it.” He also wants legislation that ensures that masks and vaccinations are not mandatory in schools, which he has already ordered through executive action.

Not anything here that would make it more enticing for the Dems to come back, that’s for sure. The item about changing quorum rules is cute, but if it needs a 2/3 vote to pass as a constitutional amendment, I would not expect it to go anywhere, for all the obvious reasons.

What will the Dems do? They haven’t said yet, and as before I don’t know. Looking back, they didn’t get a voting rights bill passed, not that anyone could have expected that, though it’s fair to say there’s a lot more pressure being applied on President Biden and the Senate Dems to make that happen. Perhaps the new “Right to Vote” bill by Sen. Ossoff has a chance – it wouldn’t address everything – redistricting reform would be a key omission – but it would help. As expected, between the infrastructure bill and the January 6 committee hearing and our national fruit fly-level attention span, they’re getting maybe one percent of the press coverage they got when they first left, but again, I don’t know what could have changed that. They successfully killed off the first session, and for the most part the Republicans have been able to do little but sputter and post the occasional juvenile photo on Instagram, so I’d call this a draw. A draw that still inevitably ends with them back in Texas and the odious bills they have been able to stop so far getting passed anyway. Again, it was always going to be this way, barring a miracle from Sens. Manchin and Sinema.

Two other points: One is that redistricting data is soon to arrive.

Ideally for the Republicans, they breeze through this session, finish up all the business they want to get done, then get a short break before embarking on this much more involved task. They want to get to this quickly to foreclose even the minimal possibility of a federal voting rights bill that includes preclearance and redistricting reform being enacted. The ideal scenario for Dems is less clear to me, but running more time off the clock so that the original special session items have to take a back seat to this is probably better than what I just laid out as being best for the GOP. In short, the best outcome is still bad unless there’s some federal action to mitigate the damage.

As for restoring legislative funding, the Quorum Report posted an item just before the new special session was announced that suggested the possibility of the Legislative Budget Board moving some money around to fix that problem. Unfortunately, the LBB can only meet when the Lege is not in session – the QR report speculated that they would have this weekend to do that, with Special Session 2.0 being called for Tuesday – so that is off the table. That means that either the Dems show up and the Lege fixes it, the Supreme Court rules that Abbott’s veto was unconstitutional (AS THEY SHOULD ANYWAY), Abbott himself uses his emergency powers to plug the hold he dug, or the funding runs out and who knows what happens to redistricting. You know that sequence from “Animal House” where the Deltas have sabotaged the marching band and the parade they were in has devolved into chaos? That’s the energy I’m getting from all this now. I’ll leave it to you to decide who Bluto and Niedermeyer are in this analogy. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: More here from the Trib, reiterating that House Dems have not committed to a specific action just yet.

Back to Code Red

Pretty much inevitable at this point.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday returned the county to the highest COVID-19 threat level and urged unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

At a news conference, Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner pleaded with residents to get vaccinated, wear masks in public settings, and avoid hospitals except for life-threatening conditions.

“We find ourselves retracing our steps toward the edge of a cliff,” Hidalgo said. “It’s very conceivable that we can once again be heading toward a public health catastrophe.”

[…]

The county’s data report Wednesday evening showed how far and fast the situation has deteriorated: an explosion of new cases and a positivity rate of 16 percent. Hospitalizations in the Houston area have increased for 20 straight days and show no signs of slowing; they are on pace to set a pandemic record in about a week.

At its heart, the stay-home request of unvaccinated residents is toothless. Hidalgo lacks the authority to enforce it, let alone issue less restrictive edicts, such as mandatory mask wearing. As one of the most popular local elected officials, however, she hopes to shake residents from a sense of complacency that the pandemic is over.

“I know there’s a lot of conflicting messages, there’s a lot of confusion, so I don’t want to talk about what I don’t have the ability to do,” Hidalgo said of the state pre-emptions. “The truth of the matter is, the best we can do right now, the most we have the authority to do right now, is what we’re doing. So, we’re going to continue to make the most of that and really be direct about what we want the community to do.”

The mayor, who bucked the governor in requiring city workers to wear masks this week, said the numbers would dictate the city’s response to the virus. As of Thursday, 197 city employees had active cases of COVID-19.

“The numbers will dictate my response, and then we’ll deal with whatever happens after that. But I’m not going to be constrained by some order,” Turner said. “Wherever this virus goes, and whatever we need to do to check it and to save lives, is what I’m prepared to do.”

As the story notes, several other big counties have taken this step already, and more will surely follow. For those of you who like visuals, here you go:

Not a pretty picture at all. There’s nothing more Judge Hidalgo can do, since Greg Abbott has cut off any power that local officials had once had. I note that as of this writing, Mayor Turner’s employee mask mandate has not yet drawn a response from Abbott or Paxton. Makes me wonder if there’s more room to push the envelope a little, or if further provocation will draw their wrath.

While we can count on Judge Hidalgo to do everything she can to mitigate the spread of the virus, we can also count on her colleague to the north to do nothing.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are continuing to increase dramatically in Montgomery County and around the region as the delta variant surges in unvaccinated residents.

While the Department of State Health Services recently started tracking cases in vaccinated people and specific data is not yet available, county health officials are reporting most new cases in unvaccinated residents.

“We can say that the vast majority of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths have not been vaccinated,” said Misti Willingham with the Montgomery County Hospital District. “Vaccines help reduce the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death. Being vaccinated does a great job prepping your immune system should you encounter the virus.”

[…]

According to data from the health district since July 7, total hospitalizations in Montgomery County increased from 42 to 238 with 48 of those patients in critical care beds. MCPHD noted 157 of those 238 are Montgomery County residents.

The county’s active cases jumped 767 to 4,219. Since July 7, active cases in the county have surged by 3,624. The county’s total number of cases is now 60,941, increasing from 55,838 since July 7. Additionally, the county added three more reinfections bringing that number to 26.

However, health officials did not report any additional deaths from the virus. The total number of deaths remained at 354.

The county’s testing positive rate has climbed from 4 percent in early July to 19 percent. To date, 30,742 people have fully recovered.

Note there’s no comment from Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough in that story. Which is just as well, because when he does talk, this is the sort of thing he says. I have no words.

Since it’s all up to us to keep ourselves safe, we may as well remind ourselves of what we can do. Or at least, what we could do with just a little cooperation from our state government.

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations growing exponentially in Houston and Texas, responsibility for blunting the surge is still largely a matter of personal choices, leaving medical and public-health professionals pleading with Texans to be vaccinated, mask up and maintain social distancing.

On Wednesday, Texas reported 8,130 hospitalizations, a 44 percent increase since last Wednesday. At Texas Medical Center hospitals, 311 patients were hospitalized for COVID, up from 61 only a month before.

“When all the indicators head in the same direction, that gives you a good idea,” said epidemiologist Catherine Troisi, who teaches at UT School of Public Health. “Right now everything is looking bad.”

[…]

“Delta is so transmissible, it’s picking off anyone who’s unvaccinated,” said Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor. “That’s what’s been happening in Louisiana and Mississippi, and now it’s starting here.”

Of the three main strategies to blunt the effect of the coming surge — vaccinating, masking and social distancing — Hotez favors vaccinations, and says it’s crucial to administer as many as possible immediately.

“If we wait until mid-surge, a vaccine campaign will be much less effective,” he said. “If ever there were a time to vaccinate, it’s now.”

He continued: “The single best thing we could do is mandate vaccinations for schools, but in Texas we’re not even talking about that. We can’t even mandate masks.”

Troisi agreed that urging individuals to act responsibly isn’t enough.

“From a public health standpoint,” she said, “we need to get people vaccinated, and we need to increase testing. Maybe we don’t have to mandate vaccines. But you shouldn’t be able to go into Target or eat at McDonald’s if you’re not vaccinated. There have to be consequences for not getting the vaccine. You can’t just put other people at risk.”

The delta variant moves faster than previous coronavirus strains, notes Spencer Fox, associate director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

“With the traditional coronavirus, if someone is infected, on average they’re infectious starting two-and-a-half days after infection and show symptoms at five days,” he said. “But with delta, a key difference is that the time between exposure and being infectious is shorter by a day.”

A percentage of people infected today are almost certain to need hospitalization within one to two weeks. So preventive measures taken today, he said, “will help reduce hospitalizations a week from now, and will have major impacts two weeks from now.”

In other words, all of the same risk-minimization techniques we had before, back when we didn’t have an amazingly effective vaccine that was free and available to everyone over the age of 12 to really truly minimize the risk. I’m going to boil it all down to “get you and everyone in your family who is eligible vaccinated, and do everything you can to avoid any contact with unvaccinated people”.

For sure, stay the hell away from this.

Texans for Vaccine Choice will host a rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol later this month, protesting “the current state of medical mandates” as the state grapples with a surge in COVID-19 cases and stagnating vaccination rates.

The rally is scheduled for Aug. 21 at 11:30 a.m. A panel discussion will address the state’s current COVID protocols and vaccine requirements.

“I’m speechless,” Dr. Peter Hotez said Thursday morning. “To do that when there’s a public health crisis, with COVID rates going up — it’s terrible.”

As someone once said, terrible is as terrible does. If the COVID they will spread could be limited to just them it would be one thing. But it’s not, and so here we are.

Another ruling to allow whistleblower lawsuit against Paxton to proceed

So much for all the lawyers to do.

Best mugshot ever

A state judge has rejected a bid to dismiss a whistleblower lawsuit filed by four former executives at Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office who said they were fired in retaliation after accusing their boss of misconduct.

In a brief order issued Tuesday evening, state District Judge Amy Clark Meachum gave no reasons for allowing the lawsuit to continue.

Shortly after the ruling, however, the attorney general’s office notified Meachum that it had filed an appeal, halting further action on the case, including a planned April 5 hearing on a request by two of the whistleblowers to be reinstated to their jobs.

[…]

During a March 1 hearing on the motion to dismiss, Bill Helfand, an outside lawyer hired to defend the attorney general’s office, argued that there was no basis to sue because Paxton was allowed to fire the employees for any reason.

“Texas employees of any elected official always serve at the pleasure of the elected official,” Helfand told Meachum.

[…]

Meachum’s ruling on the motion to dismiss was delayed by an earlier appeal from Helfand, who objected when Meachum called a second hearing on March 1 — to consider whether to reinstate the jobs of two whistleblowers — without ruling on his motion to dismiss.

Helfand argued that no further action could be taken until his motion was ruled upon because it questioned whether Meachum had jurisdiction to hear the lawsuit. Meachum disagreed, held the second hearing, heard from two witnesses and recessed the hearing for the night, but her plans to resume March 2 were blocked by the 3rd Court of Appeals while it considered Helfand’s appeal.

The appeals court rejected that appeal on March 12, leading to Meachum’s ruling Tuesday.

See here and here for some background. I’m honestly a little confused by what that “April 5” hearing was supposed to be about. Clearly, I’ve missed a story or two along the way, but the gist appears to be that there was a motion to dismiss by Paxton and a motion to reinstate two of the fired employees that Paxton objected to, and along the way there have been rulings and appeals and now here we are. According to Chuck Lindell, the 3rd Court of Appeals will have a hearing on September 22, presumably to consider the ruling that the lawsuit can proceed. Maybe it will be more clear at that time. Mark your calendars and we’ll see.